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New York Times: "An opera buffa with recipes, 'Cooking With Fernet Branca' works because of the voice of its part-time narrator, Gerald Samper, a Briton living in Tuscany who describes himself as an 'amanuensis to knuckleheads.'"

Date: Dec 27 2005

THE success of this novel about a ghostwriter who's as nasty as the bottled bile of the title came as a surprise in Britain, especially to the book's author. "I wrote 'Cooking With Fernet Branca' to cheer myself up at a low point," James Hamilton-Paterson observed in The Guardian. "I wasn't aware that the book was so especially funny until people started telling me."

An opera buffa with recipes, "Cooking With Fernet Branca" works because of the voice of its part-time narrator, Gerald Samper, a Briton living in Tuscany who describes himself as an "amanuensis to knuckleheads." The novel has an elaborate plot that's completely beside the point, except as a vehicle for his running commentary on a turf war with the neighbor who invades his isolated hilltop. Gerald's peevish account of his struggle with Marta, a composer who has fled from the fictional Eastern European nation of Voynovia, provokes the sort of indecorous involuntary laughter that has more in common with sneezing than chuckling. Imagine a British John Waters crossed with David Sedaris, then add a dash of Tarquin Winot, the narrator of John Lanchester's wonderfully macabre novel "The Debt to Pleasure."

Gerald's highly embroidered rendering of his rival's fractured English is one of the book's best running gags, but his true creativity is reserved for the kitchen. He's never happier than when belting out spoofs of arias while whipping up a batch of, say, Garlic and Fernet Branca Ice Cream with which to repel his intrusive neighbor. ("When going out to dinner with someone you would be relieved to learn had died during the course of the day" is a typical embellishment of a recipe.) Back in her own house, Marta strains to make out the words as Gerald's "pinched puppy" voice drifts through her window. " 'Vedi, vedi vedi il fondo del barattolo!' See the base of the container?" she translates incredulously. In a matter of days, she has included a parody of Gerald's singing in the score she's writing for a film by the Italian director Piero Pacini (read Pasolini), which Gerald later describes as "a pornographic remake of 'Zabriskie Point.' "

The narrative is rampant with silly but strangely satisfying twists, as when Marta's gangster brother comes to visit one night in a helicopter, convincing the skittish pop star whose biography Gerald is currently ghosting that a U.F.O. has landed. The occasion inspires Gerald's ur-recipe, Alien Pie. Featuring smoked cat, it's flavored with Fernet Branca and a single drop of kerosene - and garnished with "a jaunty buzzard feather."

Alien Pie provides, Gerald claims, "one of those experiences poised exquisitely between sorrow and oblivion," a remark that highlights the vein of sadness running beneath the novel's surface - and enhancing rather than undercutting its humor. In a reminiscence made all the more touching by its economy, Gerald recalls watching as his mother and brother were "swept off the face of the earth by a freak wave" while strolling along a sea wall, "leaving behind a vast and empty expanse of salt air that has surrounded me ever since." The wave washed all meaning from his life, reducing him to "tossing fanciful recipes and fanciful arias into the face of despair."

Despite Marta's dismissal of "Gerree" as "a harmless dudi" (Voynovian for the sort of eccentric who wants to call his autobiography "Under a Tuscan's Son"), readers can't forget what usually happens in novels to men and women who hate at first sight. It's the final twist that's surprising: Hamilton-Paterson, previously reluctant to bore himself by doing the same thing twice, has confessed that he's working on a sequel.